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Juraj Jakubisko

It has been almost 15 years since the countries declared their independence from one another, but Slovakia born director Juraj Jakubisko’s personality, work and focus are all marked by the dual cultural identity of the former Czechoslovakia. Experimental films during his student days at FAMU, The Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, opened the doors to film festivals worldwide and domestic acclaim equal to that of Fellini or Bergman. Long after the premiere of his first feature film, Jakubisko retains his own personal image of the world and in the words of film critics he uses imagery like a painter and thoughts like a poet, presenting them all in a perfectly mastered cinematic style. His latest work, gothic-thriller Bathory, is scheduled to be in cinemas starting fall 2007.

Before becoming a filmmaker, Jakubisko taught still photography at a secondary school for applied arts in Bratislava.In 1960 he moved to Prague and studied at FAMU under the distinguished writer and vedette of 20’s Czech cinema Vaclav Wasserman.He graduated in 1965 and followed this with work at the Magic Lantern theatre and its avant-garde stage director, Alfred Radok.

At age 28 Jakubisko directed his first feature film, Crucial Years (Kristove roky), about the illusions of youth lost in adulthood.Among the film’s many awards are the FIPRESCI and Josef von Sternberg awards at Mannheim, Germany. That was followed by Deserters and Pilgrims, where Jakubisko realized his artistic vision in the dual role as cinematographer and director. The short-story triptych received the medal for young artists (Little Lion) at the Venice International Film Festival.

The French co-production Birds, Orphans and Fools, manifested from the shock of the Soviet occupation in August ‘68 and the resulting despair and absurdity. Jakubisko perceived a connection between the two producing countries in the Slovakian pilot and French General Stefanik, and cast Philippe Avron as one of the leads. The three protagonists symbolically remind us of the horrors of occupation, violence, totality and destruction in which love and life itself are destroyed. “There is something both cruel and light hearted about this film,” said Avron who attended a retrospective of Jakubisko’s work recently in Paris.

The Soviet Union and their Warsaw pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed the country’s nascent liberalization (’Prague Spring’ January to August ‘68). During the communist clampdown that followed, Jakubisko’s work – like all who remained in the country – faced heavy censorship. Essentially banned from feature film making for 15 years, his short films and commercials continued to bring forbidden recognition. But Jakubisko seized an opportunity to speak out with his 1979 Build a House, Plant a Tree, where his negative hero became the main protagonist who characterized the times: “one who doesn’t steal from the state, steals from his own family.” The resulting success at the film festival in Amsterdam placed the film on a list of prohibited works and meant another embargo on further activities for the director.

An earlier effort, See You in Hell, My Friends, had been stopped by communist censorship. The story, full of surrealistic symbols and bizarre images, depicts the fate of people who gave up their own freedom and after a painful awakening are searching for new hope. The film was completed 20 years later and released in 1990 with the original negative material that remained beyond the censor’s reach, in the hands of the Italian producer in Rome. The break in filming did not detract from its powerful message against totality, fanaticism and ideological terror.

Political oppression continued and Jakubisko’s film making activity was highly scrutinized, but he was invigorated by the creative validation that his film received at Amsterdam. He used the subject of infidelity to explore the comedy genre with Falsehood in Slovak Style in 1981. The Millennial Bee followed with Jakubisko mingling different genres to reveal the story of three generations of peasants and the threads of love woven by forefathers and their descendants. Using his typical stamp of allegory, fantasy and visionary imagery, the mystic existence of nature is confronted with the emotions and vitality of the protagonists, determined by the developments of civilization and the increasing cruelty of history. A success across generations and sold- out locally for weeks, the film was awarded at the International Film Festivals in Venice and Sevilla, received several local prizes and won Best Film of the 1980’s by Czechoslovakian journalists in 1990.

In the 1985 The Feather Fairy,actress Giulietta Masina brings a lightness and cheerfulness to Jakubisko’s childrens’ tale, which won awards and recognition throughout the world. For her husband, director Federico Fellini, Jakubisko was considered a ‘real brother.’ “In Jakubisko’s films the irrational, miraculous and fabulous appear as naturally as life itself, but not all of us have Jakubisko’s eye to enable us to see the miraculous, unexpected and fantastic, even in simple everyday life,” said Fellini.

Sitting Pretty on a Branch, about the years following the war through to the fifties, came out in cinemas a mere three months prior to the fall of socialism. With the beginning of perestroika, the director was able to break taboos and the film won the Grand Prize at the Moscow Film Festival in Russia in 1990, as well as awards in Venice, France and locally.

After the fall of the totalitarian regime in November 1989, Jakubisko made a film about the search for happiness, satirically entitled It’s Better to be Wealthy and Healthy than Poor and Ill. Intoxicated by freer morals, the two main characters rush forth in their search for happiness, mistakenly considering this to be wealth and success only to discover the meaning of morals, love and forgiveness in the end.

The separation of Czechoslovakia in 1993 and the political involvement of both Jakubisko and his wife, actress/producer Deana Jakubisková-Horváthová, meant that the couple had to move to Prague where they established Jakubisko Films. Their first production was An Ambiguous Report about the End of the World in 1997, which is taken from the Nostradamus prophecies. Jakubisko states that, “some people are afraid of the prophecies of this 17th century French astrologer, but as a skeptic I don’t think the world will end the way he predicted. That’s why my film is about an ambiguous report, not a certain one. I still believe in the human race,” affirms the director, whose use of magical realism in cinema has been compared by critics to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ cherished literary style. The film was shown at more than 60 international film festivals and won four Czech Lion awards.

Jakubisko followed this with the 2004 bittersweet comedy Post Coitum, starring Franco Nero and a gallery of couples looking for love in all the wrong places.

Bathory, Jakubisko’s 15th feature film, looks at the life of 16th century Hungarian Countess and accused murderess Erzsébet Báthory. Some say that the legend of her gruesome deeds inspired Bram Stoker’s tales of Dracula. In his first English language film, Jakubisko’s bloody fairytale takes inspiration from history and will be in cinemas in fall 2007.

Taos Talking Picture Festival awarded the director with the Maverick Award in 1998, and he became a member of the European Film Academy (EFA) in the same year.

In 2000 Jakubisko was awarded the title of Best Slovakian Director of the 20th Century by film journalists and critics, as well as being the first director from the eastern bloc to win the Golden Seal in Belgrade, Yugoslavia for his contribution to world cinematography. Considered an artist of magical realism, the same year Jakubisko was awarded a Czech Lion for Best Film Poster for Wild Flowers (Kytice), a local and international success.

Of his other activities, Jakubisko continues pedagogic work at the Film Academy of Performing Arts where he was named senior lecturer in June 2001 and has played a major role in educating the younger generation. In October 2001 Jakubisko was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Masaryk Academy of Art in Prague for his artistic activities and for his support of art. He has also held his own solo exhibitions of paintings and during a retrospective of his films at the Accattone cinema in Paris patrons had a chance to see an exhibition of the director’s illustrated scripts, paintings and posters – a window to his cinematic vision of the world.

In 2002 the director received a Czech Lion for Artistic Achievement. The same year he was also honored with the prestigious Pribina Cross, given by the Slovakian government for his significant contributions to the development of Slovak cinematography.


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